What happens when we cease to fight our own wars? This isn’t a question of privatization through private military companies, but more a question on technological progression and the guarantee of safety in conflict. It’s the center of The Machine (2014), which writer-director Caradog W. James said was a critique of the evolution of warfare—the replacement of soldiers with intelligent machines—alongside a critique of artificial intelligence and its evolution in the modern age. But is this a reinterpretation of Frankenstein creating a new kind of monster, or is it a pale imitation that fails to rise to life?
In the very near future, the Ministry of Defence of Great Britain is enduring a cold war with China. As the arms race continues in both nations, Britain expects to win the war by implanting injured soldiers with cybernetics to retake their positions on the battlefield. Heading this project is Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens). In the beginning of the film Vincent is seen running tests on Paul Dawson, a soldier who’d experienced head trauma and has been fitted with cybernetic implants. Frustrated that the man has failed to regain cognitive abilities even with the implants, he ignores his patient. This lack of attention turns Dawson hostile. In an attack he murders and wounds Vincent until a soldier is able to stop him.
Having recovered, Vincent conducts a series of Turing Tests in hopes of finding an artificial intelligence that could supplement his program. While his efforts haven’t completely failed, cyborgs that are able to function become inhuman, communicating amongst themselves without speech and capable of drone work. In the last of these tests, Vincent questions and is impressed by one AI that he deems closest to passing the test. Though Ava (Caity Lotz) is eager to receive a grant to continue work on her AI, she’s apprehensive when she learns Vincent works for the Ministry of Defence. It’s her AI that convinces her to agree to his terms.
On her first night working at the black site, Ava is grilled by Thomson (Denis Lawson) for having stopped to console a grieving woman who happened to be Dawson’s mother and a history of anti-war sentiments and politics. She’s allowed to remain only when Vincent makes it clear that making cyborgs was a failed effort and the only way to meet the project’s aims is with an android using Ava’s AI. Through conversation it’s made clear that Vincent has no more interest in war that Ava does, and that his time here is to develop an implant for his daughter Mary who suffers from Rett Syndrome, a severe neurological disorder. Sympathetic with his aims, she allows her brain to be mapped in order to help Mary.
During a test of a cybernetic implant, James, an amputee soldier, displays enhanced strength. He asks for Ava’s hand, wanting to touch another person after being unable to for so long. Momentarily he manages to whisper into Ava’s ear a cry for help before they are separated. This makes her curious, and so she asks Vincent what is kept hidden in the site. Vincent explains that they are helping these soldiers even if they may not seem perfectly comfortable at all times. She ignores this and explores the site on her own, and Vincent delivers a second, sterner warning against her exploration. Alerted to this, Thomson has decided she’s a threat, and has a Chinese man pose as Dawson’s mother, allowing him to kill her after drawing her in with her sympathies.
Desperate at the loss of his partner, Vincent decides that what has been scanned of Ava is sufficient to continue with the project. The android, they call Machine (Lotz). Through subsequent examinations, it’s clear that the Machine exhibits a humanity all its own, independent from Ava. As Thomson grows frustrated with her development, he has her kill and it leaves her feeling violated. Afraid, she goes to Vincent seeking protection from Thomson.
A rift grows between the site director and the head of the project. When Mary dies Thomson threatens to destroy all Vincent has compiled in his quest to save his daughter, including a complete scan of her brain, unless he can bring the Machine to operational readiness. Though she is afraid, Machine, who’s fallen in love with Vincent, willingly surrenders her humanity which is relegated to a chip. Despite the deal made, Thomson orders Machine to kill Vincent as proof that she’d be an obedient android. Machine, who dupes Thomson, reveals that her humanity hadn’t been sacrificed at all. Together with the cyborgs on site, they assault the base, fighting Thomson’s men and freeing the imprisoned soldiers.
Having retreated to his office, Thomson begins executing cyborgs with a “kill function” in their implants. But before he can kill them all, Suri (Pooneh Hajimohammadi), his personal assistant and cyborg, kills him and is wounded in the process. Machine, having tracked him through the entire site, corners Thomson and he is forced to beg for his life. Though she agrees not to kill him, she lobotomizes him, robbing him of his humanity as he had attempted to do to her. With all threats removed, she downloads Mary’s scans, and leads Vincent and Suri safely out of the base. Once outside, Vincent surrenders information of their dealings there to Dawson’s mother, and he and Machine leave to start a life together.
The final scene shows Vincent speaking to a simulation of Mary generated on a computer tablet. She asks to speak to her mother, and Vincent hands her to Machine as they walk towards the sunrise.
As someone who watches a great deal of film of many genres, the first thing to stand out to me is whether or not a particular actor fits a role. Many producers of music claim they can hear a hit within the first ten seconds of track playing, and while it isn’t an exact science, nor will I claim to be as quick, I can spot a bad fit for a role quite early on in a film.
Make no mistake, the film is not about Vincent or his daughter. It is central to plot and thus the entire film, but the actor most responsible for carrying the entire production is Lotz. As Ava, though featured briefly, we see a sympathetic voice in a world obsessed with war and enemy agents hiding in shadows. As Machine we see a true innocence given access to power it cannot yet comprehend. It makes her both pitiable and extremely dangerous to both friend and enemy. It’s a standout performance for an actor whose resume is only beginning to take form.
In addition to her acting abilities, Lotz was also required to enter into a physical role in order to portray a super soldier engineered for combat. With the exception of a role on the CW’s Arrow—which came after the production of this film—she has no other action credits. It’s a shame once you see her move on camera with both mechanical and martial precision that dominates focus whenever she is moving on screen. Add that to the athletic aesthetic chosen over the stick-thin model preference, and what’s presented stands apart.
Much in the vein of Motoko Kusanagi, Sarah Connor, or Molly Millions, Machine is in an exclusive fictional fraternity of female protagonists who have a physical superiority over their male charges and the moral obligation to keep them safe from harm. This has been attempted many times on film and literature and there are few examples of it being executed properly. This is one of them.
Whenever I hear a film score it’s very difficult for me to separate them. I do believe that with the passage of time, scoring film has been perfected more like a science and a bit less like an art. That may sound counterintuitive, but it works. Where scores were introduced to replace the lack of audio in silent films, it took decades for editors to realize that the music they’d introduced was overwhelming the acting on screen. In my personal opinion, most scores before a decade ago are unlistenable as standalone pieces of music. John Williams, for example, is an amazing composer worthy of every award he’s received, but the rise and falls of his works make it something that does not work outside of cinema, let alone with a pair of headphones.
Continuing the theme of minimalism, Tom Raybould, a producer who admittedly has not had a long career, introduced something unique to score this cybperunk film. Rather than try to copy Vangelis—which many have done and failed—and inspire thoughts of a dark future trapped with concepts from the ‘80s, or attempt to syphon the mystic elements Kenji Kawai used to convey spirituality in transhumanism, Raybould inserts sounds when appropriate. Keeping to both classical piano and synth, emotional moments communicate properly, and movement speeds by with purpose. Never was I distracted with words burdened by inappropriate musical accompaniment, but I was left wanting more once it was over. It’s one of a handful of times I’m left hoping the person behind a music score begins a serious independent music career.
The future will be minimal. It’s a belief I have and it’s the design choice taken by many companies focused on consumer electronics. The Machine is militaristic for obvious reasons, but it’s fitted with sleek glass and metal frames, and this illusion of transparency juxtaposed with the attraction towards secrecy mirror’s a real-world conflict that arises when technology is offered at the expense of personal agency. Tech featured appears futuristic and familiar because it takes just one step forward from where we are. The production team was aware of their budget and how to use it, unlike other films in the genre obsessed with appearing too futuristic without the means to get there.
At the mid-point of the second act, Machine is born through a ritual of surgery much like the acclaimed “birth of a cyborg” scene in Ghost in the Shell. It is not equal in length, nor does it comprise as many units of machinery, but it is a beautiful and simple approach to showing the “birthing” of Vincent’s creature.
While a lot is done right in The Machine, it has one glaring issue at the center of its production. It’s clear that this film was intended to be much longer than it was in its release. But, being an independent film, there were constraints in terms of resources and time, so there were many elements that perhaps had to be cut or worked around in order for the film to be fluid. And I commend them for what they were able to do with such constraints, but the pacing of this film is evident of their limitations.
Though the second half of the second act is given the appropriate amount of pauses, which allows the audience to truly appreciate Vincent and Machine’s relationship and the circumstances they find themselves in, the first hour simply flies by. The first act is told in about ten minutes. From there the film moves at a break-neck speed to deliver as much of the necessary information to support the plot before getting to the good bits—Machine being born and understanding her humanity.
The politics being what they are in the production and distribution of film, I’m afraid the only time we’ll get to see what was cut from the script would be if Hollywood ever decides on a remake. Though I’m not suggesting it.
The Machine was a surprise film for me. I went in knowing nothing about it and was overjoyed with what I’d found. By knowing the limitations of their budget, and opting for realism and minimalism over the trickery of most Hollywood films in this genre, Caradog was able to deliver something unique. When juxtaposed with Robocop (2014), a film that attempted to answer the same question of sacrificing humanity by separating people from acts of war, we clearly see that budget is no replacement for passion for a project. With more than one hundred and thirty times the budget (this is not written in error) and a cast of well-known actors, that film failed to capture an iota of the humanity Lotz was able to display in about 60% of the time allotted.
In addition to its statements on war, one must consider the exploration of humanity in machinery, something that is a staple in cyberpunk. While other films have erroneously focused on empty platitudes of what it means to be human, Machine prefers to show how she feels towards Vincent, her home, and her purpose. There is true growth in Machine, and what starts out as an artificial child in the body of a woman quickly transforms into soldier that permits life to a new organism.
It’s been over a year that the film’s been in circulation, and I don’t expect it to gain the attention of Hollywood producers wanting to give Caradog more funding to take a second stab at this idea, I do, however, hope that it develops a dedicated cult following other low-budget cyberpunk classics have in the past.
You can purchase a copy of The Machine here.